by Jeremiah Bass
Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works forty years. Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in their heart; and they have not known my ways. So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.) Hebrews 3:7-11
Last time, we considered Heb. 3:1-6 in light of the claims of Christ. But because Christ is Lord of all, superior to Moses, the eternal Son of God, he is not one to be neglected or despised. He is to be obeyed, and that is the point of verses 7-11. Jesus Christ is not there simply to be admired or to be talked about like some abstract philosophical notion. He is to be embraced as King of kings and Lord of lords. We are to bow the knees of our heart to him. We are to submit to him and to give him our hearts – mind, affection, and will. We are to submit our thoughts to him, our loves to him, and our choices to him. We are to bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
And when I say, “we,” I mean we, as in everyone in this room, and everyone out of this room. Jesus Christ is not a tribal deity: he is Lord of the Christian in the pew, and he is the Lord of the atheist or the agnostic who could care less about religion. God commands “all men everywhere to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). He is not waiting for you to care: you are commanded to bow the knee to Jesus Christ whether you care or not, for the simple reason that Christ’s lordship is not dependent upon your feelings about him. It is the reality that you should conform your feelings to, not the other way round.
Now some folks who love the doctrines of grace get nervous when you say that God commands all men everywhere to repent. They get even more nervous when you say that God commands all men to put their faith in Christ. And the primary reason they get nervous and object to this is that they misunderstand the doctrine of total depravity. They believe that because the Bible teaches that no one can come to Christ or love God or submit to God’s commands apart from grace, that to call someone who is dead in sin to faith and repentance would be to say that the spiritually dead can do spiritual things. This is a half-truth. It is true that the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14; Jn. 6:44; Rom. 8:7-8). But it is not true that the natural man is therefore off the hook for not believing and repenting, or that they should not be called to repentance and faith.
Why is this? Behind this objection, an objection that is symptomatic of both hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism, is the assumption that ought always implies can. In other words, if I am obligated to do something, I must be able to do it. But this is not always true. For example, just because I can’t pay back a debt, doesn’t mean that I’m not obligated to pay back that debt. There is a moral obligation to pay my debts, even if I don’t have the money in my pockets to pay them back. Think about the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. He could not pay back his debt (ver. 25), but that did not release him from his obligation to pay. Now this is significant because our sins are likened to debts (“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” Mt. 6:12). Just because you can’t pay your sin debt (and none of us can) does not mean that you are no longer guilty or obligated by them. Ought does not always imply can.
But, as we all recognize, sometimes it does. So, does it apply to the command to repent and obey? Well, think about the command to love God. Let me ask you this: Is it okay for an unregenerate man to hate God? No, I think all of us would say it is not okay. It is sin to hate God. And this is true even though it is a fact that an unregenerate man cannot in any real sense love God. It would always be wrong to give the impression that the ungodly are off the hook for their hatred of God just because they cannot love him apart from grace. Like Joseph’s brothers; we are told that “they hated him [Joseph], and could not speak peaceably unto him” (Gen. 37:4). Does the fact that they could not speak peaceably with him mean that it was okay that they could not, or that it would have been wrong to tell them that they ought to have spoken peaceably with him? Of course not!
This is true not only for the command to love God but also to believe the gospel. When our Lord began his ministry, we are told that he “came into Galilee [a place that would ultimately reject him], preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:14-15). We are not told that he limited this command to the elect or even to the regenerate. All in Galilee who heard this message were commanded to repent and believe. We don’t have to think that our Lord somehow believed that lost men had the ability in themselves to respond to the message. Regardless of the disposition of their hearts, they were still under obligation to repent and believe.
Someone may still say, “Well, I don’t see why God would condemn someone for not believing if they cannot.” To this I reply that you don’t spare a snake because it is its nature to bite; you kill it precisely because it is its nature to bite. (The analogy of the snake is apropos: for didn’t our Lord say to the Pharisees, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” Mt. 23:33.) God will not put out the fires of hell because it is the nature of the sinner to sin; he will judge them precisely because it is their nature to sin. It is just for God to hold sinners responsible for their sins even if it is their nature to sin. The fact that it is their nature to sin and that without grace they will go on in their sin does not excuse it – if anything it makes it even worse. Just because it is not in the nature of the unregenerate to repent does not mean that God cannot hold them accountable for refusing to repent.
Another point of confusion has to do with the doctrines of election and limited atonement. By election we mean that God, from all eternity, unconditionally chose out the human race some to be saved. By limited atonement we mean that Christ died for the elect only. Now here is where the confusion comes in: people will say, “If Christ died only for the elect, how can we call all men to believe in him?” But this objection comes from a misunderstanding of what we are called to believe in the gospel message. What I mean is this: when the gospel comes to me and calls me to believe in Jesus, it is not a call to believe that I am elect or even that he died for me. Neither of those things may in fact be true. Rather, the call of the gospel is a call to embrace Jesus as he is presented to us in the New Testament – as our Lord to whom we must submit our whole lives, and as the only one in whom forgiveness of sins can be found. And the requirement to believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior is completely consistent with the doctrines of unconditional election and particular redemption.
Why am I saying all this? I’m saying this because there are some folks who confuse a general call to repent and believe with a rejection of the doctrines of grace. But that’s not based on a Biblical grasp of those doctrines; it is based on a misunderstanding of those doctrines. We affirm, with Scripture, total depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, effectual calling, and the perseverance of the saints. We also affirm, with Scripture, that all men, regardless of their spiritual condition, are called to repent of their sins and embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior. And we do this without retreating one inch from the Biblical insistence that we can only truly love God and repent of our sins and believe on his Son by the sovereign grace of God that gives new life to the spiritually dead.
I’m also saying this because it is relevant to what we are going to be considering in the text of Hebrews today. The central command of this passage is a command to listen and believe the words of God and a warning for those who will not. The reason why what I’ve been saying is important is that I don’t want to give one inch of wiggle room for those seeking to excuse their sin. “I couldn’t help it.” “I am just too far gone to do what God wants me to do.” “I don’t know if I’m regenerate, so I don’t think I’m responsible to obey God.” “I don’t know if I’m elect, so I don’t think I have to obey God until I know.” These are all terrible excuses. But that is just what they are: they are excuses, no more and no less. When God’s commands come to us, we are immediately obligated to obey them, all of us, no matter what our spiritual condition is.
Here obedience to the Divine call and command is urged primarily from the hideous example of the Israelites in the wilderness. The verses which we are looking at here are a quote from Ps. 95:7-11, which refers back to the events at Massah and Meribah (which mean, respectively, “temptation” and “striving”) recorded in Exod. 17:1-7. There the Israelites had just left Egypt after seeing miracle after miracle. And yet the first time they lack water, they complain as if God was not worthy to be trusted. They tested him – put God on trial as it were. It was a horrid display of rebellion and unbelief. The Psalm 95 passage also refers to the refusal of the Israelites to enter the Promised Land as a result of their unbelief: “Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it” (Num. 14:22-23).
We are meant to consider the example of these rebels and be repulsed in our hearts (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11). The Bible not only draws us toward obedience by setting before our eyes the sweetness of faith and obedience; it also seeks to repel us from disobedience by setting before our eyes the ugliness of sin. This is what Heb. 3:7-11 is doing. And that’s what I hope happens today. I want you to look and be revolted by the picture of rebellion painted in these verses. This is not hyperbole; it is a real and true picture of what sin is and what sin does. And it’s good because the devil wants to paint sin in false colors. As the Puritan Thomas Watson put it, Satan presents the bait but hides the hook. The point of passages like this are to show you the hook behind the bait.
In my office at home I have a “demotivational” poster. It is a picture of the hulk of a part of a ship sticking out of the ocean, where it has obviously sunk. This wreck is a constant reminder that someone made a terrible mistake. And the caption under the picture is this: “MISTAKES: It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.” I have this in my office as a reminder – a reminder that my life could be like that. I don’t want that for me, and I don’t want that for you. But that’s what the wilderness generation of the Israelites are: a warning to all of what following them in their mistakes will do (cf. Ps. 78:6).
This text basically falls into two parts: it tells us what obedience is and then it tells us what disobedience is. Again, the purpose of this OT quotation is to motivate us to obedience by demotivating us to disobedience. May we by the grace of God be properly motivated and demotivated.
What Psalm 95 tells us about obedience.
It tells us three things about obedience: the urgency of obedience, the condition for obedience, and the terms of obedience. The urgency of obedience is seen in a couple of ways. First, in the fact that the one who is speaking to us, who is commanding us in the words of Scripture, is none other than the Holy Spirit: “Wherefore, as the Holy Ghost saith, Today if ye will hear his voice” (7). The one who is speaking in the pages of Holy Writ is none other than the Spirit of God, and to reject him is to reject God, not man. And we must not think that this is a word that God has spoken for another crowd in another day. No, this is a word which he continues to speak to us. As we’ve already had opportunity to notice, this is in the present tense; it is not that the Holy Spirit has spoken but that he is speaking, and he is speaking in these words to us (cf. 12).
Second, we see the urgency in the word “today” in verse 7. “Today, if ye will hear his voice.” This is not something to put off. This is something to hear and to act upon immediately. You may not have tomorrow to act upon it, so act upon it today. As the apostle Paul put it, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). The Psalmist shows us how this is to be done: “I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments” (Ps. 119:59-60).
There is a “too late doctrine” in Scripture. You see it in parables like the Parable of the Fig Tree in Luke 13: “He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down” (Lk. 13:6-9). Our Lord spoke this parable immediately after saying, “I tell you . . . except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (5). The lesson is clear: don’t put off repentance because there might come a time when you’re cut down and repentance is impossible. If you need to repent, repent today. “Today, if ye will hear his voice:” it’s urgent!
Then there is the condition for obedience: “if ye will hear his voice.” I need to be willing to hear God’s voice. And where we hear it is in the words of Scripture. We are going to see that the Israelites in the wilderness did exactly the opposite. Are you willing to hear God’s voice? Or are you only willing to do whatever seems right to you? Oh that we might have the spirit of Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth” (1 Sam. 3:9-10). To refuse to hear God’s word is a serious thing, for it is a sign that we do not belong to him. For “he that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God” (Jn. 8:47). And, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27).
Third, there are the terms of obedience: “Harden not your hearts” (8). It is here that we come to the heart of the passage. To harden one’s heart means that we refuse to have our affections moved and our minds molded and our wills turned by God’s word. It means that we have become impervious and unyielding to the influence of God’s instruction. It means that we have become “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (13). On the other hand, the command implies that we become the kind of person who quickly and readily obeys God’s word, who doesn’t question it or doubt it or hesitate about it.
The rest of this passage is meant to illustrate the danger of hardening your heart by pointing to the experience of Israel in the wilderness. This picture is meant to help you see just how disgusting and dangerous it is to harden your heart so that you won’t do it. May we have ears to hear now what this text now says about disobedience.
What Psalm 95 says about disobedience.
In the following verses (8-11), we see four things: God’s description of disobedience, God’s reaction to disobedience, God’s evaluation of disobedience, and God’s denunciation of disobedience.
First, consider God’s description of disobedience. You have it there in verse 8. What does it mean to harden your heart? Well, a comparison is made. It is as if the author is saying, “If you want to see a visible representation of spiritual hardness, look at the Israelites in the wilderness.” So he writes, “as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness.” The word “provocation” there means “rebellion.” That’s the first thing we note about hardening your heart against God’s word. It is nothing less than an act of rebellion against God.
We need to often remind ourselves of this. We need to remind ourselves that every sin is an act of rebellion against God. Every sin is an act of treason against the Sovereign of the universe. It does not matter how small or how great is the sin: every sin falls into that category. It is a slap in the face of the Almighty. It is essentially to tell God, in whose hand is our every breath, and to whom we owe every moment of our existence, that we are going to call the shots, thank you very much. When we harden our hearts against God, and refuse to obey his word, we are saying we don’t have to obey him, that in that particular instance he is not God, we are.
That makes those who harden their hearts rebels against the God who is infinitely exalted and glorious. In his presence the seraphim bow their heads, and we who are dust and ashes presume to take his throne. My friends, there is only one place fitting for people who harden their hearts against such a God: hell. And one day, our Lord will come “in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:8-9). Those who refuse to recognize the glory of his might will one day be crushed by it. What in the world are we thinking about when we provoke God, when we rebel against him!
He goes on to give a further description: “when your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works forty years” (9). To test or tempt God is to stand as judge over him. It is an act of defiance. It is to say that you will not come to him on his terms but only on your terms. And this is what the Israelites did. Despite all the miracles that they saw, they refused to believe on him. They refused to believe that God was for them and instead they treated God as if he were their enemy. They walk through the Red Sea on dry land, and then come to a place with no water and assault God with the accusation that he had brought them out there to die of thirst!
Now I am always tempted to say, “But I would never have been like that.” Really? Apart from the grace of God, everyone of us would have been like that, would have joined them in their rebellion and hardness. How many of us only want to relate to God on our terms? We will commit ourselves to him if . . . Well, then, we are just like the Israelites in the wilderness!
We move on from the description of the disobedience to God’s reaction to their disobedience: “Wherefore I was grieved with that generation” (10). If you are thinking, “Well, but this is the God of the OT…” listen to the words of Mark 3:5: “And when [Jesus] had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts….” Of course the Son of God is going to have the same reaction to disobedience and hardness as his Father. The OT portrayal of God is as relevant today as it was when it was written.
But think about this. When God looks at this – God whose wisdom is perfect and infallible and whose knowledge is exhaustive, who is holy and just and good – he is grieved. His perception is always perfectly accurate. God was not grieved because the Israelites were giving him a hard time. He was not grieved because their disobedience inconvenienced him. No, he was grieved because their behavior was so incredibly sad to see and heart-breaking to watch. God knows what their end will be, and he is grieved. Just as there is joy before the angels when one sinner repents, even so there is sadness and grief before the angels when sinners harden their hearts. And that consideration ought to make us think twice about our sin.
Then notice God’s evaluation of their disobedience: “and said, They do alway err in their heart: and they have not known my ways” (10). I think this is an amazing evaluation. Let’s take this in reverse order – first, “they have not known my ways.” Of whom was this spoken? It was said of the Israelites, the very ones who saw the Ten Plagues in Egypt, who walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, who daily ate the manna that fell from heaven, who saw the pillar of fire over the tabernacle, who experienced miracle after miracle after miracle. How in the world could they not have known God’s ways! Well, the reason is that they were blind. That is, “they do always err in their hearts.” If your heart is wrong, it doesn’t matter what evidence people will put before your eyes. You will always interpret it through the eyes of unbelief. And this is exactly what the Israelites did. Their unbelief made them blind to the most dramatic displays of God’s power ever witnessed on the earth up to that point.
This was also true of many of the people who witnessed the miracles of Jesus: “But though he had done before them so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him” (Jn. 12:37). It tells us that miracles and might aren’t enough to convince sinners, so blinded are we by our sin. And so it is today. People don’t reject the gospel primarily because of the intellectual arguments against it. They do so primarily because they don’t want to submit to God. They don’t want to bow the knee to Jesus Christ. They don’t want to humble themselves before God. That’s what hardness does. It turns you into Pharaoh who hardened his heart against the God of Israel despite all the wonders that he saw, for the simple reason that he did not want to humble himself before him. Pharoah didn’t want to give up his gods for the God of Israel; even so, those who are outside of Christ refuse him because they don’t want to give up self-sovereignty.
But the point is that every sinner is blind. That’s what it does to us. You have to give credit to the devil that he is able to convince people that by sinning they see. He makes blind people think that darkness is light. Such is the blindness produced by sin that only the grace of God will open blind eyes.
Finally, consider God’s denunciation of disobedience: “So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest” (11). We know what happened to the rebels in the wilderness. They were prevented by God from entering the Promised Land. This is a picture of what the end is for those who harden their hearts against God. It is a picture of final judgment. We know it’s a picture of final judgment because God’s wrath is not waged against his people, against those who are saved. God’s wrath is against the lost. When the apostle Paul warns, “Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things [the sins of verses3-5] cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience,” he is not talking about a bad hair day. He means, as he puts it in verse 5, that none of these folks “hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” It means they are not saved. God’s wrath is not against his children; it is against the wicked.
And so we must interpret the “rest” here, not in terms of some earthly blessing merely, but in terms of the rest of salvation in Christ. There is no hope for those who harden their hearts and die in their sins. There is no hope for those who harden their hearts and refuse to submit to Christ, only the promise of judgment.
So what does this text say about disobedience, about hardness? It calls it what it is: rebellion against God, something that God perfectly evaluates as grief-worthy, as blindness, and as the herald of future and final judgment. My friends, let God be true and every man a liar. The whole world may rail against this. They may mock it and ridicule it. They may tell us that we Christians are all always afraid. Well, my friends, I am not afraid for myself because I am in Christ. I am not afraid, not because I’m better than anyone else – for I am saved by grace, not by works – but because of what Christ has done for me. But all who are out of Christ ought to be afraid, and they ought, as John the Baptist put it, to flee from the wrath to come. This is not fear-mongering, it is the sober truth. And one day, when we all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, it will be seen by all to be the truth. May God open your eyes to see the disgust of sin and the end of sin and hardness. And may he open your eyes to see the fullness of Christ to save all who come to him. May you experience what Charles Wesley wrote:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound by sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free I rose, went forth and followed Thee!”
And Christian, may our obedience be quick and universal. Let us learn to hate sin more and more and to love holiness more and more. As Paul puts it to the Romans, let us “abhor that which is evil” and “cleave to that which is good” (Rom. 12:9). Let us hear, as we ought, the words of the apostle John, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not” (1 John 2:1).
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