As we considered in the last post of this series, Hebrews 6:4-6 teaches that it’s possible for a Christian to so rebel against God that he falls away, and this happens when the Christian can no longer be brought back to repentance. However, as noted in the previous post,
Therefore, we must be careful not to interpret this passage to say that someone who is sorrowful for his sins and wants to return to God will be denied by God. It plainly says no such thing! Nothing here contradicts the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God forgives … Jesus saves … if we are penitent.
We don’t need to imagine that God will reject a penitent believer, but neither do we need to imagine that it’s easy to give up your rebellion and return. Not only is there a point where it becomes impossible to repent, long before then, there’s a time when it’s very difficult to repent. Rebellion is nothing to toy with. It’s seductive, addictive, and extremely difficult to escape.
Renewing to repentance
Royce Ogle noted in a comment that the passage speaks in the passive voice. The rebel must “be brought back to repentance.” The emphasis is not on the person himself repenting (which, of course, is the goal) but on the efforts of others to bring him back. I think there are two “others” in mind: God working through his Spirit and the other members of this person’s church.
Repentance is a work of the Spirit —
(Rom 8:13-14) For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
(2 Th 2:13) But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.
Indeed, to resist the Spirit’s work is to grieve the Spirit (Eph 4:30).
But a much more prominent theme of Hebrews is the importance of our fellow Christians —
(Heb 3:13) But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
(Heb 6:10) God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.
(Heb 10:24-25) And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
(Heb 10:33-35) Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
(Heb 13:1) Keep on loving each other as brothers.
(Heb 13:17) Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.
The message is that salvation is not entirely an individual thing. We struggle together, we encourage each other, and we are responsible for each other.
God’s incredible patience
Of course, if you don’t fall away until you are so far removed from God that repentance is impossible for you, then you remain saved up to that point. That makes God an incredible patient Father! And many protest such a generous interpretation. But that’s what the passage says.
Now, some argue that there’s another falling away — a reversible one that happens when you rebel but before you become so hardened that you won’t repent. It’s a nice theory, but I can’t find it in the Bible. Rather, I find evidence that God is actually unbelievably patient.
(Rev 2:18-24) “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. 20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. 24 Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you):
What is the sin that so concerns the Son of God? Well –
- In some sense, she is like Jezebel — a prophetess of Baal and opponent of God’s own prophet Elijah
- She claimed to be a prophetess
- She encourages fornication
- She encourages idolatrous practices
- Others commit “adultery” with her
Mounce notes in the his New International Commentary that fornication was a common feature of pagan feasts — which of course also involved eating meats sacrificed to pagan gods. Hence, he suggests that this was the likely context of the warning — especially given how central such feasts/orgies were to business guilds and Greek society. To refuse to participate was not like choosing the Methodist Church instead of the Church of Christ — it was to surrender one’s position in the business community and society in general.
The trade guilds practically controlled the city of Thyatira; every industry was strictly regulated by these guilds. In order to work in a trade; you had to belong to the guild – sort of like a powerful union. But to be a member of a guild also meant worshipping the pagan god connected to the guild. Any Christian involved in any trade was presented with the problem: his or her faithfulness to Christ would affect his livelihood.
The amazing thing is that God shows “Jezebel” any patience at all! I mean, how could someone be true to her faith in Jesus and submission to Jesus as Lord and yet not only teach these things but also encourage others to do the same? This passage shows God to be astonishingly patient! But his patience is not unlimited, and he will at some point give up on those who deny Jesus as Son of God and Lord.
Now, we all know people who’ve seemingly fallen away, rejected the holy things of God, and even become an enemy of God, only to later repent and become very faithful Christians. Obviously, as it wasn’t impossible for them to repent, they never really fell away. Either they weren’t saved at all before they appeared to fall away or they remained saved throughout their time of rebellion. And passages such as the one just quoted from Revelation tell me that it’s entirely possible that such a person remained saved throughout his time of rebellion.
Now, some argue that such a teaching is dangerous, as it seemingly gives permission to rebel and then come back to Jesus, but my experience is that the vast majority of those who rebel never come back. It’s like an addiction. Some kick it and go on to live healthy, happy, productive lives. Most don’t, and only an idiot takes that chance.
The real lesson is, I think, that we give up on people far too easily and far too quickly. When we try to bring a beloved brother or sister to repentance and fail, we very often give up. I don’t think God does, and he sometimes succeeds. He’d succeed more often if we didn’t give up so easily.
An unsure salvation
Another collateral result of this understanding is that our salvation can, at times, be very unsure. While confidence and assurance is always available to us, we often turn our back on God’s promises and slide into a state of jeopardy before we fall away entirely. Hebrews says,
(Heb 6:10-11) God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.
Our hope is not necessarily sure. And the way to make our hope sure is to serve others. Peter teaches a similar lesson —
(2 Pet 1:5-8) For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although we begin with faith, we must grow in the Christian virtues — and never stop growing.
(2 Pet 1:10-11) Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Here we encounter the same thought. We can have an unsure election. We can live in jeopardy of falling away. But we can also live in a way where we “never fall” and have a sure “election” and “calling.”
Plainly, Peter doesn’t see calling and election as unconditional and irresistible, but they can be sure if we grow in Christ. You see, the best way to avoid going backwards is to go forwards. Playing with rebellion, going backwards even briefly, is dangerous because our heart can be quickly hardened. We can’t count on being able to repent in the future.
I can’t reconcile either Hebrews or 2 Peter with the notion that Christians necessarily persevere and so their calling and election is necessarily sure. No, we are plainly taught that we have to be diligent and grow in order to have a sure election — and I think this is a teaching that should be taught over and over and over. We need to hear it.
Our assurance is in Jesus, but we only stay in Jesus so long as we are true to Jesus — and Jesus ministers to others and is filled with the virtues Peter describes. If we turn away from the life of Jesus, we risk also turning away from his salvation.