October 14, 2018[Audio currently unavailable]
I’m sure most of you are aware of the current, passionate disagreement that exists in the church regarding both the reality and the duration of hell. There are basically three positions – again, within the church – that you can hold:
- First is to deny the existence of hell – or, to deny that people actually go there for eternity. Some of you are familiar with Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, in which he teaches a universalism – that is, at the end, everyone eventually goes to heaven, because God’s love wins.
Before him was a guy named Clark Pinnock, who denied the idea of judgment as being unworthy of a loving God. For example, he wrote:
“I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed…. Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a blood-thirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die.”
Emotionally-charged words, understandably – but devoid of biblical support.
- A second position is called annihilationism – that is, unbelievers are sent to hell, in which they are destroyed or consumed and therefore cease to exist – they are annihilated. Probably the best-known to consider the topic is John Stott, who wrote:
“I find the concept [of eternal punishment in hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” But, recognizing the folly of allowing emotions to determine our beliefs, he added, “as a committed Evangelical, my question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?” Stott actually ended up saying he was open to the discussion of annihilation, but never fully adopted the position.
- A third option is to accept the seemingly clear teaching of Scripture: that there is a hell, created for the devil and his demons, into which rebellious unbelievers are cast for eternal, conscious torment. Such passages as Matthew 25 are often quoted, where Jesus Himself says:
31 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.
32 “All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;
33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….’
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels….’
46 “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I find no personal joy or satisfaction in reading those words, but they are the words of Jesus, and I accept them, nonetheless. There are other passages which again seem to clearly point to eternal, conscious torment. Regardless of your personal position, dying apart from Christ is a horrible and fearful state. So says the text before us today in our continuing study of the book of Hebrews.
Now, if you are a visitor this morning, I know there are pastors who seem to relish preaching hell and damnation, fire and brimstone. It is suggested they seek to scare the literal hell out of people. I am not one of those pastors. But, we go verse by verse through books, which do speak of eternal condemnation for those who reject the gospel of Jesus Christ. While I don’t relish the topic, I love God’s Word, and readily accept the responsibility to teach it as it comes. So, read the text with me, found in Hebrews 10:26-31.
This the now the fourth of five severe warnings found in the book of Hebrews. The author is writing to Jewish believers who were suffering as a result of their faith in Jesus. They were considering returning to Judaism, a much more acceptable and respectable religion. The author writes to both encourage and warn them. His encouragement comes in this: Jesus is better than Judaism – He’s better because He’s better than the angels, than Moses and Joshua, Aaron and the Levitical system of sacrifices, than the Law and the Old Covenant. In fact, He’s better because He is the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Covenant – it all pointed to Him and the perfect sacrifice He would bring in the shedding of His own blood. Conversely, the warnings have been like this:
In the first one, found in chapter 2, he challenged his readers to pay attention to what they had heard so they would not drift. You see, if those under the Old Covenant in the OT drifted and received a just penalty for their disobedience, how will we, under the New Covenant, escape if we neglect so great a salvation? We won’t.
In the second warning, found in chapters 3 and 4, he doesn’t want found in any of them an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. Instead, he said, encourage one another day after day so that none will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For, we have become partakers of Christ if we hold fast to the end. So don’t harden your hearts.
The third one was found in chapters 5 and 6, where he scolds them for having remained spiritually immature. By this time, they ought to be feasting on meat, but continued in the milk of the word. By this time they ought to be teachers, but instead, they needed someone to teach them the basic principles of the Christian faith. And to remain in spiritual immaturity, to not grow, is to put yourself as risk. The warning culminates in chapter 6 with what some consider to be the most severe warning in the book, perhaps in the NT. There, he says don’t walk away. Don’t quit – if you do, there will be no returning to repentance.
Which brings us to this fourth warning – perhaps as severe. Some suggest it’s even worse, because not only does it talk about the horrible sin of apostasy – walking away – but it talks about the terrible consequences for doing so.
Now let’s not forget the context of chapter 10. The author has just finished his multi-chapter, doctrinal portion of the book, in which he has clearly demonstrated Jesus is superior to the Levitical system. You see, the Old Covenant was founded on the Law of Moses. The New Covenant is founded on the Gospel of Jesus. The old had a high priest after the order of Aaron, the new after the order of Melchizedek. The old sacrificed animals, which could never take away sin or perfect the consciences of its followers. The new sacrificed the Son of God, which takes away sin forever, and purifies the consciences of its followers. The old was found in the privacy behind the veil of the earthly tabernacle on the Day of Atonement, which was a constant reminder of separation from God and the sinfulness of the people. The new was found publicly on the Cross of Christ, which tore the veil and made access to God in the heavenly tabernacle a reality by forever removing the sins of His people.
So, He’s finished the doctrinal section, which leads to the “so what” section. From doctrine to duty, from creed to conduct. We have several chapters of application left. And he started in chapter 10, verses 19-25 by saying three things: let us draw near to God, let us hold fast our confession of faith, and let us encourage one another in the process. For, verse 26 – if we don’t – if we walk away – if we apostatize – there remains only certain judgment.
Don’t think the author or I am only focusing on the negative. Far from it – he’s been encouraging us all the way. It is the bulk of his letter, and will continue through chapter 13. But yes, he also severely warns us. He would be remiss – I would be remiss, not to do so. John Piper writes in his sermon on this passage, “We believe that the only good motivation [for sharing the gospel] comes from hearing about grace, not judgment. And little by little we let that conviction (as unbiblical as it is) creep into our view of God himself, until we have no categories anymore to understand, let alone love, a God whose wrath is a fury of fire against sinners. But the writer of this book of Hebrews will not be silent about the wrath of God.” This warning can be outlined as follows:
- Willful Sin (Apostasy) Brings Certain, Terrifying Judgment (26-27)
- Willful Sin Worse Under the New Covenant (28-29a)
- Willful Sin Defined (29b)
- Willful Sin’s Judgment Promised (30-31)
Starting with willful sin results in certain, terrifying judgment. Notice verse 26 begins with the word, for – that’s a conjunction to what he’s just said before. Draw near, hold fast, encourage one another – and don’t forsake meeting together to do that. For, if you don’t draw near, if you don’t hold fast, if you don’t encourage one another by forsaking meeting together – you run the significant risk of falling away.
Here, he says it this way, if you go on sinning willfully (present participle) after receiving the knowledge of the truth. What truth? The truth he has just shared with us that can be summed up in the Gospel – the good news of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection, bringing the New Covenant. If you sin willfully – meaning, if you walk away from that to return to Judaism, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.
This should be clear to us by now. You can’t return to Judaism – its Old Covenant sacrifices are obsolete. They were simply types pointing to the New Covenant sacrifice of Jesus. You can’t go back there – there remains no sacrifice for sin there. And I would add – if the sacrifice of Jesus is God’s way to find forgiveness and reconciliation, there is no other system of religion that will work either. You say, I think I’ll try out a Eastern, mystical religion. You can’t do that – they don’t have Jesus. If you leave the Christian faith, you are leaving the one and only way of reconciliation to God. There is no other way.
So, if you leave, there remains no sacrifice for sins and no forgiveness. Therefore, there does remain a terrifying expectation of judgment. The word terrifying comes first in the phrase for emphasis – there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, terrifying – the word means fearful or frightful expectation, assurance of judgment. A judgment made up of a fury of fire (interesting phrase – God is not just a little upset with sin – He is zealously, passionately angry at sin) that will eat up or consume the adversaries, a quote of Isaiah 26:11. Now, at first glance that can look like the judgment destroys the unforgiven rebellious apostate – but we’ve already seen that judgment is eternal. Jesus even refers to the fires of hell as a place where the worm does not die.
The author is strongly warning those who were considering walking away – committing apostasy – if you do, all that remains is terrifying judgment. Is he trying to scare them? Of course he is. But he is scaring them with certain, inescapable truth. “These people had received the gospel. They were walking away from Christ in the broad daylight of truth.” (Piper)
And that certain truth brings us to the second point – judgment under the New Covenant is worse than judgment under the Old Covenant. As he’s done before, he argues from the lesser to the greater – as he did in the first warning in chapter 2. There he said:
1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.
2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty,
3 how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard,
4 God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
So also in chapter 10, “Anyone who has set aside – drifted away, walked away from – the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” The sin of idolatry – turning from the true and living God – was punishable by death. And since it required the death penalty, a severe punishment – it required witnesses.
Verse 29 – lesser to the greater – how much severer punishment do you think he will deserve if he walks away from the New Covenant? And how is the punishment more severe? Well, to walk away from the Old Covenant resulted in physical death. Walking away from the New Covenant results in eternal spiritual death. Yes, of course, idolatry in the Old Covenant resulted in spiritual death as well – but his point is, the one who walks away from the gospel is deserving of more severe punishment. Please understand what he is saying. It is a big deal to hear and understand the gospel, and say, thanks, but no thanks. As Christians, we like to have our list of really bad sins. But here, the author seems to have at the top of the list – knowing the gospel, understanding the gospel, and perhaps even superficially accepting the gospel. But then, walking away – committing apostasy. For you, it is a willful sin which deserves severe punishment.
But why? What is this sin of apostasy? He defines it in the rest of verse 29. By walking away, the willful sinner does the following three things:
- First, he has trampled under foot the Son of God. To trample under foot is to treat with contempt. This person, having been exposed to Jesus – that is, who He is – the very Son of God – and turning away from Him is treating the Person of Christ with contempt.
- Second, he regards as unclean – common, ordinary, nothing special, ineffective – the blood of the covenant. We’ve seen the Old Covenant was inaugurated with the blood of animals – because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. But that blood was only a type and could never take away sin. It pointed to the blood of Christ, which alone could atone for sin. And to walk away from Jesus is to treat His blood which inaugurated the New Covenant with disdain – it is unclean, ineffective.
That very blood had sanctified the one walking away. We’ve seen in Hebrews the author does not use the word sanctify like Paul does – that is, the ongoing process of sanctification or growing in Christ-likeness. Rather, our author uses it to speak of salvation. So to commit apostasy is to treat the very blood that saved you as unclean – ineffective – with contempt.
Now obviously this presents a significant challenge. Is the author here suggesting this was a saved person who, by then rejecting Christ, loses his or her salvation? We’ve talked about this already, so I won’t belabor the point. I don’t personally think a truly saved person can lose his or her salvation – I believe that actually goes against the teaching of this book. That leaves two options I’ve shared before. First, it’s possible this person had made a profession of sanctifying faith, but was not truly saved, and proved it by walking away. That’s a fairly typical understanding for those who believe you can’t lose your salvation – as I do.
A second possibility suggested by some which I kind of like is that these warnings are to true believers and are always effective. Yes, there were some thinking about walking away, but the author warns them, and us – true believers – don’t do that – the consequences are severe. And so they, and we, don’t do that. We listen. Here’s the point – are you listening, saved person? Are you treating the blood of the New Covenant with disdain – with contempt? Do you love it as your most valuable treasure?
- Well, a third thing to happen if you do commit apostasy, walk away from Christ, is to insult the Spirit of grace. This is the only place in the NT where the Spirit is referred to as the Spirit of grace. It likely refers to the fact the Spirit is the one who regenerates and makes grace active in the once dead unbeliever. To walk away from that is to insult or outrage the Spirit of grace.
You can’t help but think of the unforgiveable sin from Matthew 12. No, the unforgiveable sin is not suicide or murder or abortion or any number of other things you might have heard. It is attributing to Satan the work of the Spirit. Here, to walk away from the work of the Spirit of grace is to treat His work with contempt. That’s why the author said in chapter 6 that it is impossible to renew such a one to repentance. Meaning, if apostasy of true believers is possible – since they have treated the Spirit with insulting, outrageous contempt – it is impossible for them to be saved again.
Which leads us to our last point – to willfully sin having received the knowledge of gospel truth – to walk away and commit apostasy results in the terrifying consequence of promised judgment. The author, as he often does, quotes the OT for support – here, the final song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” In other words, He will dole out just reward – or in this case just punishment – if you walk away. You will not be immune to His judgment. In fact, to trample the Son under foot, to treat with contempt the blood of the covenant, to insult the Spirit of grace is to receive even severer punishment.
Am I trying to scare you? Of course I am, because the author is. Don’t walk away. Don’t commit apostasy. The consequences are severe. He quotes Deuteronomy 32 a second time, “The LORD will judge His people.” That is terrifying. We tend to think God will only judge the unbeliever. But here, he says He will even judge His professing people, if they walk away.
Verse 31, know this – it is a terrible – same word as verse 27 – a terrible, fearful, frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God. While his text was a verse in Deuteronomy, Jonathan Edwards was referring to this verse when he titled his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Don’t believe it when you hear that God is only a loving God – not an angry, wrathful God. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a God so provoked. John Piper, again writes in his sermon, “The love of God provides escape from the wrath of God by sacrificing the Son of God to vindicate the glory of God in forgiving sinners. That’s the gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ – the essence of Christianity – makes no sense at all apart from the wrath of God. If there is no wrath and no judgment to escape, then Christ was sacrificed in vain.”
One of the major arguments against hell as eternal, conscious torment is the idea of eternal punishment for temporal sins. That is, paying for eternity for sins committed in time seems inequitable. But I would suggest, we do not comprehend the enormity of our sinful rebellion against an infinitely holy God. In addition to seeing its magnitude in our punishment – we should also see its magnitude in the price paid to rescue us. It wasn’t that God could or would just forgive us based on some paltry payment. No, forgiveness required the death of His own Son. And so, in addition to seeing the magnitude of our rebellion in the death of Christ, we should also see the magnitude of His love for us. For you. Is God a God of wrath and judgment? Yes. But He is also a God of infinite love and mercy.
As I close, I want to go back to John Stott’s quote from my introduction. He said, “I find the concept [of eternal punishment in hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” If hell is real and eternal – reality and duration – how do you deal with this truth? Have you cauterized your feelings? Cracked under the strain of it? If we believe the Bible, unbelievers are headed for a Christless eternity in eternal, conscious torment. How should that affect the way we live – and the way we desperately share the gospel?