March 18, 2018
I’m sure by now in our study of Hebrews you have some very important questions. Like:
- Is the author warning his readers against backsliding or apostasy?
- For that matter, what is backsliding and what is apostasy? And, is there a distinction between the two?
- Can a Christian backslide? And recover?
- Can a (true) Christian commit apostasy? And recover?
Of course, those questions seems so academic – seminary-like questions – so let’s get more personal and practical, with maybe some more troubling questions, like:
- If I haven’t always walked faithfully with Christ since my profession of faith, have I lost my salvation? Am I still a Christian? And how far and for long do you have to go to lose it? And how many times?
- Which presupposes another troubling question – can a Christian lose his/her salvation?
- How about, is it possible to become a Christian again if you do lose your salvation?
- If a friend or loved one made a profession of faith – maybe years ago – but hasn’t really lived for Christ, is he/she still a Christian? They prayed the prayer, right? So, I go to a funeral, and the person never really lived for Jesus – he wasn’t really bad, but never really lived for Him, either – is he/she in heaven? As a pastor in the Bible belt south, I don’t think I’ve ever done the funeral of a person who wasn’t a “Christian” – at least according to their families.
- If a friend or loved one professes Christ, but leaves and falls into gross sin or immorality, are they still saved? Or are they just backslidden? Or, were they ever even truly saved?
- And what about eternal security – you know, once saved, always saved? Isn’t being saved some kind of fire insurance? And, how does this “perseverance of the saints” figure into all this? For that matter, what is the “perseverance of the saints”?
These are tough questions, you see. Unsettling questions. And, I suspect questions we’ve all had, and probably have had an emotional impact on every one of us. We’ve all experienced or known people who have experienced significant ups and downs in their spiritual lives – what do I do with that? We all know people who made a profession of faith, maybe even walked it for awhile – but haven’t darkened the door of church in a long time. What do I do with that? The statistics everyone likes throwing around is, the majority of our “Christian” youth go to college and walk away. Some come back. Most don’t. In fact, the fastest growing demographic of atheists is within the millennial generation. What do we do with that? Were our youth Christians, or not? Troubling questions, especially if your loved one was brother or sister, son or daughter.
I do think it incredibly important we define our terms, lest we end up terribly confused. So let’s start with those first academic questions; you see, they aren’t just seminary questions – they hit us right where we live. What is backsliding, and what is apostasy? Are they different – and, what is the author of Hebrews addressing?
Let’s start with backsliding – it’s a good old Southern term. Very simply, it is defined as a relapse into bad habits, sinful behavior, or undesirable activities. That’s a dictionary definition. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website says it this way, “The Old Testament uses ‘backsliding’ to speak of those who have been near to God but have allowed sin to take them away from Him.” For example, Jeremiah 14:7 says it this way (ESV), “Though our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for your name’s sake; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you.” You see the idea of backsliding connected to sin – someone who professes to be a Christian – I’ll go further – someone who is a Christian relapses or falls back into sin. Notice, the definition does not say the person has denied their faith or denied Christ; they’ve simply allowed sin to draw them away from their relationship with God. Have you ever done that?
Using that definition, I think most of us would agree there have been times in our lives when we have allowed sin, for a time, to draw us away from our relationship with God. Oh, we didn’t deny our faith, we didn’t deny Jesus, we simply allowed the allurement of sin to sidetrack us. To trip us up. I’d love to say when we come to faith in Christ, we never struggle with sin again. I cannot say it, that’s been neither our experience, nor what the Scripture teaches. We still have to deal with sin living in a broken world, being exposed to and tempted by sin, and assaulted by the adversary of our souls, the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. That’s Peter’s warning to believers.
So again, I’d love to say that I’ve walked faithfully with Christ every day of my Christian life – I have not. But I can say the overall trajectory of my life has been one of sure growth in holiness and Christ-likeness. What does that mean? It means loving God more, growing in my commitment to and understanding of the Word of God, growing in the fruit of the Spirit, growing in my service to Him as I seek to love and serve others well, and growing in my desire to share my faith in Christ.
So at this point, we’ve answered a couple questions – what is backsliding, and is it possible for a Christian to backslide and recover, and the answer is yes. But notice, I said, backsliding is when you fall into sin for a time. Which helps us answer a couple other difficult questions. First, people who make a profession of faith, maybe even walk with Him a little while, then wander off into a life of sin have no assurance of true salvation.
Now, I’m not going to judge their eternal destiny and consign them to hell – I don’t have the authority to do so. But I will say there is no assurance of salvation. (Matthew 7) They seem to me to be like the parable of the sower Jesus talked about. Some good seed – that is the gospel – fell among the rocks, others among the thorns. They sprung up, but when affliction or persecution came, or when sin enticed and the worries of this world or the deceitfulness of wealth came, they fell away. No real root, no real spiritual life. No assurance of salvation.
No, rather, true Christians persevere. Which brings us to a definition of perseverance of the saints. You may know it as eternal security. Now, eternal security sounds like, I can ask Jesus to be my Savior, then live however I want – no problem, because I can’t lose my salvation – I’m eternally secure. Once saved, always saved. That is not necessarily true. As we just saw – to make a profession and not live the profession denies the profession. Jesus said, by their fruit, you will know them. James said, faith without corresponding works is worthless, meaningless, dead.
Now, to be sure, we don’t live like Christians to produce salvation – we live like Christians because we are Christians, and it proves our salvation. So, perseverance of the saints means a Christian, empowered by the Holy Spirit, will live like a Christian, and grow in holiness. They will not be perfect, but they will follow Christ – they will persevere. And if they don’t – then they don’t truly know Jesus.
Which leads to another answer, and we need to be honest with ourselves, as difficult as it is. People who make a profession of faith and then continue in a life characterized by sin – no life change – they don’t follow Christ – are not backslidden – they aren’t Christians. They are like the seed that fell on the hard ground, and the birds came and snatched it away. No sprouting – no growth at all. A person cannot walk an aisle, pray a prayer, shake a hand, sign a card, join a church – and then never live like a Christian, and be a Christian. This is inconsistent with the truth of Scripture. Jesus said, My sheep hear My voice, and they follow Me. What if I don’t follow? Then you’re not a sheep.
So, all that has to do with backsliding. Yes, true Christians may backslide, maybe grossly, but they also recover. Some of you have lived in sin for awhile – post-conversion. But you repented – and here you are. Some of you need to repent right now – without such, there is no assurance of true spiritual life. Some of you have friends or family members who made a profession of faith, lived the Christian life for awhile, and have now wandered off. What do you do? Two things – first, pray, and keep praying. Pray that God will convict them and call them back. And second, regularly, graciously, gently call them back. Hold them accountable. Speak truth, and seek the Holy Spirit to do His work. You can’t know their hearts, but you can pray to the God who does.
But what is this apostasy thing? Well, that’s entirely different. Oh, it may include backsliding – that is, falling into sin – in fact, it often does. But apostasy is defined as willful rejection or renunciation or walking away from the faith – a willful and conscious rejection of Christ and His gospel. I no longer believe. This is quite serious. Let me suggests some answers to those difficult questions related to apostasy. And it’s important we take them in order.
First, the author of Hebrews is addressing his warnings to those who are tempted to commit apostasy – to apostatize – that is, the going had gotten tough, and they were considering quitting. Rejecting, renouncing their new Christian faith. Walking away from Christ and His gospel and returning to Judaism. It’s incredibly important we remember that understanding for our later warning passages in Hebrews. So he’s not talking about backsliding – falling into sin for a period of time. He does address that, for example in chapter 12 when he says, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance [or perseverance] the race that is set before us.” Don’t get caught in sin – follow faithfully with endurance.
But, the warning passages are primarily against apostasy – a willful rejection of the Christian faith. Which leads to the second thing, and we must take this in order. Scripture elsewhere teaches a true believer will not apostatize. In fact, I believe Hebrews teaches the same truth. This is related to the perseverance of the saints – true believers will persevere to the end. And this is what the author is encouraging his readers to do – persevere to the end, proving the reality of their faith. Because, if they apostatize, if they do not persevere to the end, they will not enter God’s rest – that is, heaven – and they will prove their faith was a sham – not real. Let’s look at some passages which indicate the true believer will persevere. There are actually a lot, here are a few:
Jesus said in John 6
33 “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.”
34 Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. [that’s an interesting word – never thirst.] 36 “But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. [That, by the way, is how we receive the bread of life – by believing.] 37 “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.
38 “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.
39 “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.
40 “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”
The passage goes on, but clearly Jesus says when He grants eternal life, it will never be lost. Jesus says further in John 10:
28 “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.
29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
That seems pretty secure. Now, I know the argument here – there are some who say, well, since I put myself into Christ’s hand through my faith, I can take myself out through my unbelief. I can commit apostasy. I will grant, if the first part of that statement is true, then the second part is true. However, it is Christ who saved you through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who gives eternal life, and no one, not even you, can rescind it. Why would you want to?
One more. Paul says in Philippians 1:6 says, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” The biblical record is strong that once a person is truly saved, born again – he or she will remain so. God saved you from your sin, redeemed you – bought you out of the slave market of sin – and gave you eternal life – it is your eternal possession.
But, Hebrews admittedly presents some challenges to that understanding. If he is talking about apostasy – and everyone agrees that he is – renouncing your faith – walking away – and as result, not entering God’s eternal rest in heaven – here’s the question – is he implying you can lose your salvation through apostasy? Through a willful rejection of your faith? I admit this is a stunning challenge. There are passages we will come to more challenging than these first two warning passages. But I want you to know the position from which I will come. We must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, and again, the overall and overwhelming evidence is a true believer will not, in fact, cannot lose his/her salvation. And I also believe the author of Hebrews agrees with the rest of Scripture and teaches the same thing. Notice a couple of passages we’ve already looked at:
3:6 – “but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house – whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm to the end.” So the question is, what happens if we don’t hold fast our confession – what happens if we commit apostasy? Then we lose what we had? What does the text say? If we don’t hold fast our confession, then we are not His house. He doesn’t say we were His house and then are not – that is, we were in the house, then not. He says, we are His house if we remain faithful – and if we don’t, we aren’t. Further, nor does he say, we will become His house if we remain faithful. No, we are His house – proven by holding firm till the end.
Look down at verse 14 – we read it last week. “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.” We prove we have become partakers of Christ if we hold fast our assurance. What happens if we don’t? What happens if we apostatize? If we don’t hold fast, then we have not become partakers. We were not truly believers. He does not say we cease becoming partakers – he says we have become – in the past, a partaker if we persist in the present to the future. If we don’t, we don’t stop being a partaker, we never were. A couple of points. First, the “we have become” is in the perfect tense in the Greek. What that refers to is a past action with ongoing effect. For we have become partakers with ongoing effect if we hold fast. If we don’t hold fast with ongoing effect, we aren’t.
Second, to be clear, the perseverance of the saints is not something you muster up and do all by yourself. Oh no. Remember Philippians 1:6 – He who began the good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ. So just as you didn’t do anything to earn your salvation – ultimately, you don’t do anything keep it. He works in you so that you work out your salvation with fear and trembling. He gives you His Holy Spirit by whom you persevere.
So then – just like last week – that’s a lot of introduction. So what exactly is the author of Hebrews warning his readers and us against? Quitting. Apostatizing. Renouncing Jesus. But I thought you couldn’t? You can’t – if you’re a true believer. But, there were those who were quitting, and others considering quitting who were proving they were not true believers by their quitting. And he is warning us – persevere. Prove the reality of your faith by your perseverance.
So, is this warning real or not? Absolutely. Don’t apostatize. Hold onto Christ with everything you have, and everything He has given you. Hold fast your confidence, your confession, your assurance. And in the end, it proves the reality of saving faith.
Which brings us back to Hebrews 3:7-19. This second warning of the book actually extends through chapter 4 verse 13. But let’s reread 7-19 again. Remember, the author starts by quoting Psalm 95, then applies to his readers – and to us. Look at it with me. Read.
Unbelief is key. We already looked at this briefly last week. I simply want to point out two more things this morning – two things we do to hold fast our confidence, to hold fast our assurance – thus proving the reality of our faith.
- Take Care Personally (12)
- Encourage One Another Corporately (13) I could say it this way, first, watch out for yourself, and second, watch out for each other.
First, you have a personal responsibility to take care of your spiritual life and journey. He likens our spiritual journey to the Israelites’ journey, and how they fell through unbelief. That’s the key word here –unbelief. That is what prevented them from entering God’s rest.
Now, the words take care could be translated, see to it, beware, watch out that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart. A hardened heart. A heart that does not believe, and therefore falls away from the one true and living God. The implication is this – if you leave, you quit – you are leaving the only true God, the only living God there is. You cannot turn to anyone or anything else. You now know the truth of the only God – there is no other God to whom you can turn. You fall away from Him, that’s it. I want you to catch that – even Judaism will not do it… (Nicodemus, John 17, John 14)
Now, I suppose an obvious question is this: In what sense can there be a falling away or a turning away from God if we never truly belonged to God? I think the way the author wants us to understand this is in the example of the Israelites in verses 7–11 (Psalm 95). He points out in verse 9 that the people “saw my works for forty years” and still they hardened their hearts against God and went astray in their hearts. It is being exposed to Gospel, perhaps even acknowledging the gospel, but not being a partaker of the gospel. Listen to the way John Piper says it (lengthy, but John Piper):
“They had been swept up into the mighty workings of God. They had tasted his power and benefited from his Spirit and goodness. They had been enlightened with God’s revelation way beyond any people on the earth. And they had fallen away. So it was with some of the people in New Testament times. And so it is today. These people had been swept up in the signs and wonders… They had tasted the power of the age to come. They had been folded into a loving people and experienced measures of the Spirit’s work in their midst and in their lives. They had glimpsed the light of the gospel. They had been baptized and eaten communion and listened to preaching and probably had done some remarkable works themselves.”
“But, as with Israel, their hearts became hard, and an evil heart of unbelief got the upper hand, and they began to put their hope in other things rather than Christ, and over time they fell away from all the goodness that they had been surrounded with. And Hebrews says that the explanation of this is that they ‘had not become a partaker of Christ.’”
It was a sham – not real. We must not let that happen. Don’t be right at the border of the land, having seen all God’s goodness for years, and walk away. So, what does this take care mean? What does that look like? It means there must an intentional pursuit of Christ as your greatest joy. You cannot leave it to chance. It will not just happen. You must care for your spiritual life.
This is not rocket science. That comes primarily through time spent in the Word. You cannot ignore God’s Word and stay faithful. It comes through time in prayer – spent with Him. You cannot maintain your relationship with God if you don’t spend time with Him. It is strengthened through the books you read, and the people you hang out with – the stuff you expose yourself to. There is lots of good stuff – good books, good podcasts, good material to strengthen your faith. You have more opportunity at your fingertips than any generation ever. Do not leave it to chance. It won’t happen.
Further, this spiritual journey to the land of promised rest – this trip to heaven is a community journey. Remember, the author likens our spiritual journey to the Israelite exodus – and subsequent wanderings in the wilderness because of unbelief. Don’t be like them – don’t depart and die in unbelief. Look at verse 13 – but encourage one another day after day. As long as it is called today – every day is today. Don’t stop. We must encourage each other constantly in the journey. The means we need each other. You need the community of believers called the church. And it doesn’t just happen on Sunday mornings. There are small groups, and connection groups, and ministry groups, and bible studies to encourage you day after day. We never stop.
But the encouragement also includes accountability. Notice the last part of the verse, “so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We must be on the lookout for each other and our walk of purity and integrity and righteousness – and be willing to call each other out when we need it. It’s a community trip. You can’t do it on your own. And the loving thing to do as we encourage each other is not to ignore sin – that’s unloving – it is to call out sin – that’s what the word encourage means. It’s the word parakaleo, which means to call alongside. It means to come alongside people and encourage them, certainly so, but it also means to exhort them. To challenge each other in our walk with Christ. Because, verse 19, we don’t want to leave anyone’s corpse in the wilderness, outside the promised rest, because they died in unbelief.
Brothers and sisters – I need you, you need me, and we need each other on the journey. Take care, and encourage each other.