by Jeremiah Bass
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A Warning to Heed (Heb. 2:1-4)
Here at Cincinnati Primitive Baptist Church, we affirm the complete trustworthiness of Scripture. As our Articles of Faith state, “We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the revealed and inspired word of God and the only rule of faith and practice.” When I look at the wider Christian world, one of the things I am thankful for about the Primitive Baptists is that one doesn’t have to worry about heterodox doctrines of the Bible in terms of its inspiration and inerrancy. You just don’t see Primitive Baptists waffling on their commitment to the authority of Scripture, and for that I am thankful. However, it’s one thing to affirm the complete truthfulness of Scripture. It’s another thing to hear it as it ought to be heard. In other words, you can have orthodoxy and be missing the corresponding orthopraxy.
As an illustration of what I’m talking about, consider the Pharisees. In terms of overall doctrine, these fellows were conservative and orthodox, especially when compared to the Sadducees. Though the term “Pharisee” has a lot of negative baggage, remember that even the apostle Paul as a Christian confessed himself to be a Pharisee: “But when Paul perceived the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question” (Acts 23:6). In other words, Paul didn’t see anything contradictory about being both a Christian and a Pharisee. And I think the reason is that the Pharisees had a fairly orthodox view of truth, including the OT Scriptures.
Nevertheless, our Lord was absolutely unrelenting in his criticism of the Pharisees. He called them hypocrites (Mt 23:13, ff) and blind (Mt. 23:26) and snakes who would not escape the damnation of hell (Mt. 23:33). Why? He did so because though these people had a very orthodox doctrine of Scripture, they had allowed human tradition to mute what it really had to say. In other words, though they had the Bible they had ceased to hear it. As our Lord himself would put it, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. . .. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:6, 9).
I mention this because whether we realize it or not, we have probably all (myself included) inherited certain views that hinder our ability to hear all the Scriptures as we ought. That especially includes the warnings of Scripture, like the one in Hebrews 2:1-4. So one of my goals here today in this message is to help you and me to hear this passage as we are meant to hear it. For that end, I want to look at this passage from the perspective of three questions: what, how, and why? What is the author saying, how is he saying it, and why is he saying it this way? As we move from the what to the why, we will want to pan out and look at how the warning of Hebrews 2 fits in with the wider theological context of the Bible.
What: drifting from the faith
There is something gripping about the way this text starts out: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard” (2:1). “The things which we have heard” is of course a reference to the gospel. It is a reference to the fact that God has spoken to us in his Son (1:2). The audience is called upon to “pay much closer attention” (ESV) to the message of God’s word to them. What lies behind this exhortation is the fact that they had stopped paying close attention to it. They had grown careless and lax in their profession of the faith. The gospel didn’t have the same meaning for them that it once had. And what was behind that was most likely the unrelenting hostility they had met with in the culture against their faith. It was not something they could walk away from – unless they walked away from Christ. And though it doesn’t appear that they had done that just yet, it does appear that they were on the brink of doing so.
The author of Hebrews is a preacher, giving these folks a word of exhortation. He is not interested in merely conveying information. That was not the point of chapter 1. Note that this chapter begins with the word “therefore” and then follows this stirring exhortation and warning. In other words, the purpose of chapter 1 was to give muscle to the exhortation of chapter 2. So, let’s try to understand what this warning is all about.
First, this is a warning against drifting away from the faith. Though the KJV has, “lest at any time we should let them slip,” almost certainly the correct translation is, “lest we drift away from it [i.e. the message of the gospel]” (2:1). The term used here is a nautical term that conveys the image of a ship drifting off course. So the problem is not so much forgetting the gospel, but rather a wandering away from the faith, “carried by the current” of culture as a result of “the failure to keep a firm grip on the truth through carelessness and lack of concern.”
This is very timely and relevant for our day as well. There was a time not long ago when our culture was much friendlier to the Christian faith. That is not the case anymore. And though for now our religious freedoms are holding up (for which we should thank God), to be a follower of Christ is not going to get you any credit in the public sphere. So there is a lot of pressure to put up and shut up. There is a lot of pressure to keep our faith private. The problem is that if you take that course, you are already drifting off course. You cannot be a Christian and be private about it. The Christian faith is a public faith. It is a light-shining faith, a salt-of-the-earth faith. Are we in danger of drifting away? Let us be honest about it. We are swimming against the current (the church always has), so if you stop swimming because you are tired or because you just don’t think it’s worth it anymore, then you are going to be carried by the current in the direction of everyone else. That is what is at the heart of the warning here.
How: the urgency of the warning
But that’s not the only thing. There is a reason given in the text as to why this warning is so urgent. And that brings us to the second thing: this warning is urgent (“we ought to give the more earnest heed”) because of where drifting away from the faith leads us. I think the word “for” at the beginning of verse 2 stands there to tell us that what follows gives the reason for the urgency.
What is the argument here? Well, notice first of all that verse 2 is about the Law of Moses: “For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast.” We’ve noted that the NT views the Law of Moses as having been mediated through the ministry of angels. So the martyr Stephen would accuse his persecutors of having “received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:53). The apostle Paul tells us that the law “was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Gal. 3:19). Though Exod. 19-20 doesn’t speak of angels in the giving of the law, yet when Moses later described what happened on Mount Sinai he does speak of angels being present there (cf. Deut. 33:2 – “saints” or “holy ones” is probably a reference to angels). But what about this law? The thing that is highlighted about the law is that it was “stedfast” – trustworthy, reliable, firm – “and every transgression and disobedience received a just recommence of reward” (2:2). That is to say, the law was inflexible when it came to sin. This is a point which is referred to again in this epistle: the fact that the one who “despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses” (10:28). Those who sinned defiantly died. Those who broke the law were broken by the law.
Here is the argument. Note the conditional statements: If this happened under the law, what do you think will happen “if we neglect so great salvation” (2:3)? If people didn’t escape under the law, how do you think you are going to escape God’s judgment if you sin against Christ? The comparison is important here. The comparison is still between Christ and angels. If you sin against the law, you are sinning against a word mediated through angels. But if you sin against the gospel – which is what is happening when you neglect it and walk or drift away from it – you are sinning against a word mediated through the incarnate Son: “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord” (2:3).
The point is that you are not going to escape God’s judgment if you drift away from the gospel. Now this might surprise you, because we’ve been told that the God of the NT is a calmer and tamer version of the God of the OT. But this is not the case. The OT and the NT have the same divine author. God is the same; he has not and cannot change. To reject the Law brought God’s judgment; to reject the gospel does the same thing.
Someone may object, however, by saying that the children of Israel were under greater responsibility to believe the law, since they saw so many miracles. The people at the foot of Mount Sinai were exactly those who saw the plagues in the land of Egypt, who walked through the Red Sea, and so on. To this our author responds with verses 3-4: “and [the great salvation spoken by the Lord] was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?” In other words, just as God gave great attestation to the Law, so he has given great attestation to the gospel. Now the church to which Hebrews was written saw the apostolic miracles, even if they never saw Christ himself. So they had no good reason to walk away as they were beginning to do.
However, someone today might wonder if we stand in the same position, since we have long since passed the days of the apostles. We don’t see Mount Sinai on fire as God came down; we haven’t seen the many miracles that the apostles were able to perform. Does that mean that this warning does not pertain to us? No, for a couple of reasons. First, God inspired Hebrews and put it in the canon of Scripture; in doing so, he universalized its exhortations and warnings. The fact that God put Hebrews in the NT means that he wants us to hear and take heed to this warning as well.
But another reason why this is still relevant, is the same reason Sinai and Passover were relevant to later generations of Israelites. Just because they weren’t there didn’t let them off the hook. It is the reason why fathers and mothers were supposed to recount God’s wonders to Israel; so that they would obey his law (cf. Ps. 78:1-8). Just because we weren’t there doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen! To say I don’t have to believe because I didn’t see it with my own eyes is an excuse that people will give but it is no good. We believe all sorts of things that we were never there to witness. Nor is it an excuse to say that to require belief in miracles should require greater evidence. But what sort of evidence? Most of the time, people mean observational, scientific evidence. But do you realize that what you are doing is importing a worldview into the discussion (namely materialism) for which there is no scientific evidence? No, my friend, treat the history of the Bible as you would any other historical narrative. Weigh it the way you would weigh any other account that claimed to be a genuine telling of facts. And you will find that for those with eyes to see there is a mountain of evidence for the resurrection of Christ in particular that make alternative explanations unthinkable. No, we are still under the same obligations as were the first readers of this epistle.
Why: the danger considered
Now, that brings us to the following consideration: why is the author so urgent? What exactly is the danger that is being warned here? In other words, what particular form does the judgment of God take on those who drift away from the gospel? As we consider these things, we are going to have to step back and think about how this warning fits in with the wider Biblical theological context, and we do this so that we will hear this text as we ought.
Let’s consider first two wrong ways to look at this passage. One wrong way is to look at it and say that because the elect can never be lost, this warning can only involve temporal judgments. In other words, at the end of the day, if you’re elect you can live any way you want in this world and still go to heaven. You can live in all sorts of sin with no eternal repercussions. Now that simply does not do justice to the context of Hebrews. For example, in 3:6, the writer argues that we belong to the house of Christ “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” To belong to the house of Christ is another way of saying that we belong to Christ. The author also puts it this way in verse 14: “For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast to the end.” Here the description is that of being a partaker or a sharer in Jesus. To be a partaker of Christ means that we share in all his saving blessings. In other words, what is being argued for here is the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It doesn’t mean, of course, that good works save us, but it does mean that good works are the evidence of spiritual life and without that we cannot say that we belong to Christ. In fact, quite the opposite. As our Lord put it, you will know the tree by its fruits. Good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. The fruit doesn’t make the tree, but the tree does make the fruit! If you are saved by grace through faith and not of works, you are still ordained by God to bring forth good works (Eph. 2:8-10).
So in this text, we are warned against drifting away from the faith – warned against following the path of Judas and Demas and many others – because those who are truly saved aren’t going to apostatize or walk away permanently from the faith. If you walk away, don’t carry the notion with you that you will be all right in the end, because you won’t. As Hebrews puts it later, “But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (10:39).
But there is another wrong way to read this text. It is this: it is to read this as if it were a sword hanging over the neck of every believer. There are some who look at warnings like this and preach them in such a way that it sounds like fear is supposed to be the main motivating factor in the life of a believer. Terror is what motivates holiness in this reading of the text. But that is not a Biblically faithful way of reading this text either. I mean, how can you do that and fit it in with Romans 8? Remember what the apostle Paul teaches there: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). And to Timothy, Paul would write, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). Or as the apostle John would say, “There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:18-19). Clearly, God – who is the perfect Father – does not intend for his children to be tormented into obedience.
But then, what do you do with the warning of Hebrews 2:1-4?
Remember that this text is addressed to professing Christians who were on the brink of apostacy. The writer is not addressing Christians who are wrestling with everyday sin and temptation. He is addressing a particular type of person, and that person is a person who, though they have made a profession of faith, yet they are beginning to waffle on their commitment to Christ. They are thinking about walking away from the faith. They are drifting. So the warning is this: those who drift away from the faith will not escape God’s judgment. And since those who drift away and draw back, draw back unto perdition (Heb. 10:39), this is a warning with eternal implications.
We are not saying the elect can lose their salvation. That cannot happen. What we are saying is that if you draw back unto perdition, if you completely drift away from the faith and stay there, you prove that you were not elect in the first place and you can expect God’s severe judgment upon your life.
This is where I think really having a good grasp on the doctrine of the preservation of the saints is so important. And, in particular, it helps us to understand why it is right to warn a Christian audience of the danger of drifting away, a danger with eternal ramifications. To do so not only doesn’t violate the doctrine of the security of God’s elect, but it also supports it. To see this, think with me through the following propositions.
Now the rub is this. We know the elect will certainly and surely be saved. Suppose someone in the congregation who hears this kind of warning is elect. Is it still right for them to hear such warnings? Is it right for them to take it to heart? It is right for them to apply a warning of eternal peril to themselves? I would say, yes, if they are one of those who are thinking about walking away from the faith, and I would say that for the following reasons.
First, it is right for a person to hear this warning as a warning of eternal peril, even if that person is elect, because it remains true that all who finally walk away from Christ will perish. That is still a true statement. To hear this warning is simply to believe the truth. An elect person who takes this to heart is not affirming that the elect can lose their salvation. All they are affirming is that those who do not persevere in the faith will be lost. There is nothing wrong in believing true statements. I think some people squirm under the kind of affirmation this text is making here because they really believe that there are elect out there who will live their whole lives apart from Christ or who will walk away from him and will still go to heaven. They don’t think that there is any real correlation between election and holiness. But they are mistaken. God chooses or elects his people so that they will be holy (Eph. 1:4). On the other hand, if you believe what the Bible says, that God chooses us through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13), then you will have no problem with a text like this telling professing Christians that if they do not persevere in holiness then they are not saved.
Second, it is not Biblically sound to reason that because I’m elect, therefore this warning does not apply to me. That’s putting it backwards. How do you have confidence that you are elect? The Bible says that you can have confidence that you are elect – or that you can possess genuine assurance of your salvation – when you heed warnings like this and persevere in the faith. It says that you can make your calling and election sure by looking for the evidence of it in things like faith and love and so on (2 Pet. 1:5-10). This is one of the reasons why 1 John was written, to give believers true signs of salvation: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:13). Throughout this epistle we have these signs, or marks, of eternal life, of the new birth. One of those signs is perseverance in the faith: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 Jn. 5:4; cf. 5:18).
Now someone may rebut by saying, “But I have the testimony of the Holy Spirit telling me that I am saved, according to Rom. 8:15-16, and so I don’t need such outward evidence of the new birth.” But that is not what that text is saying! It is not saying that the Holy Spirit will give assurance of salvation to those who live in sin or who walk away from the faith. Look at the context, especially verses 13-14. Those two verses, taken together, mean that those who are led by the Spirit are precisely those who are mortifying the deeds of the flesh. In other words, I cannot claim to have this Spirit of adoption inwardly testifying that I am a child of God if I am living in unrepentant sin. The Holy Spirit, after all, is holy, and will have no part in participating in giving peace to those who are living in the gutters of sin and wickedness.
Third, it is right for all to hear this warning as a warning of eternal peril because this is one of the means that God uses to bring his elect back from the brink of walking away. In other words, not only do warnings like this not jeopardize the doctrine the preservation of the saints, they actually are part of God’s plan to preserve his people!
It is important to remember that just because a person is elect does not mean that they are not immune to the attacks of Satan. And Satan doesn’t know who is elect and who is not – the Devil is not omniscient. He will try to do to us what he tried to do with Peter: to sift our faith and try to make it fail (Lk. 22:31-32). He is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8). And just because our Lord kept Peter from becoming a Judas doesn’t mean that Satan was not allowed to do something. After all, Peter did deny Christ three times and he did need to be reconverted!
And I think it is also important to note that when Peter was in the process of denying Christ, he looked little different from Judas at that moment. It was not until he repented and turned that the difference emerged. In the same way, if I have denied Christ, if I am in the process of drifting away, I may not know whether or not I am a Peter or a Judas until I repent. In other words, in that moment, I have every right to consider warnings like this to be directed at me. Again, one of the ways God brings me back to repentance is to remind me what is at stake, to remind me that those who finally walk away are, like Judas, sons of perdition (cf. Jn. 17:12).
Now I’m not saying that God can’t bring us back to repentance any other way. Different people require different methods. It’s like the apostle Paul put it to the Thessalonians: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thess. 5:14, emphasis added). In other words, for some all it takes is a look from Christ and their heart melts (cf. Lk. 22:61-62). For some, compassion is all that is needed. But some of us are a little more hard-headed. Some of us need a swift kick in the rear. Some of us need to be called to repentance with a little more urgency. We need to be awakened out of our complacency with warnings like Heb. 2:1-4. Like Lot who was hesitating about leaving Sodom and Gomorrah, he had to be told: “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed” (Gen. 19:17). [This is an especially interesting and relevant passage because God was going to certainly save Lot from Sodom’s destruction – and yet the warning was still a legitimate warning! See 2 Pet. 2:6-9.]
Now it’s clear that the people to whom the writer of Hebrews is addressing needed this stiffer, sterner warning. They had become careless and neglectful of their commitment to Christ. And the reason is that they had forgotten just how serious this is. Temporal persecution and life’s disappointments had begun to weigh more heavily to them in importance than their commitment to Jesus. And when that happens, you need to be reminded that eternal issues are at stake. Like our Lord put it to his disciples: “Whosoever … shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).
I don’t know where each of you are at. I hope that you are not where these Hebrews were at. I hope that you are walking with the Lord and that your commitment to Christ is firm and steady. If it is, thank God for his grace because he is the one who holds us fast! He is the one who keeps us (1 Pet. 1:5). I am so thankful for that reality. I am thankful for the reality of Jude 24: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” Amen!
But if you are where these Hebrews were, if Jesus just doesn’t seem that relevant to you anymore, if the things of this life are more important to you than the things of God, then you are in danger of drifting away. And therefore you are in danger of God’s judgment. If you continue in this path, you will not escape God’s judgment. And as the writer will later say, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). You need to repent and turn back. You need to consider the issues at stake. It is idiotic to sell Christ out for a mess of earthly pottage. It is suicide to sell Christ for a few gold coins. There is no hope there. You might get a buzz out of this world for the next few decades if that’s what you live for, but what about eternity? There is no hope for eternity without Christ and therefore there is no hope for those who turn away from Christ.
However, the amazing thing about Jesus is that no matter how you have sinned against him, he is always ready to take us back. He took back Peter, who denied him three times. He took Paul, who murdered who knows how many Christians. It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). You may have been really tempted by the world. You may have done some really stupid things. But thank God, he receives sinners (Lk. 15:2)! Don’t let Satan whisper in your ear that you are not worthy. Of course you’re not. God justifies the ungodly! So rest in him, and if you have walked away from him, come back to him today. For our God still receives prodigal sons (Lk. 15:11-32).
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