A theological system that cannot take seriously the warning passages addressed to believers is itself not to be taken seriously.

Hebrews 10, for example, contains perhaps the clearest, most stern warning in all of the Bible about God’s wrath and the danger of willful sin. The entire book of Hebrews is clearly directed toward Jewish Christians. But most contemporary evangelical commentaries go to great lengths to concoct a rationale under which some Christians can consider themselves exempt from the warning.

Certainly, the congregation of God’s people is a mixed assembly. Under the Old Covenant, not all were faithfully obedient about walking in God’s ways. Undoubtedly, the same is true under the New Covenant. In every Christian congregation, you can identify some who have no intention of living holy lives and making disciples. But only specious reasoning can pretend the warnings do not apply to “the elect” among God’s people because “the elect” will always “take heed and persevere in faith and holiness.”

Circular reasoning always begs the question: Since you didn’t fall, you obviously were one of the elect, which requires an accompanying arrogant declaration that if you did fall, you obviously were not among the elect. It requires that salvation be relegated to a state of being that has been achieved in the past and wrings out all meaning from the process of sanctification and the eventual reward reserved for those who endure until the end.

Consider the text of the chapter. We will begin by rejoicing over vv.1-18. We have a better sacrifice in Christ for our sin, because he chose to obey God, canceling the first covenant and putting the second one into effect. “For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time.” (v.10) The author (I believe it was Paul), then goes on to assert: “And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.” (v.18)

Clearly, he is writing to a group that included those who had been made holy and whose sins had been forgiven.

And that is why the warnings in verses 19-39 have meaning. His message is addressed to those who
— “can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus.” (v.19)
— can “go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him” because “our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean.” (v.22)
— have had their sins covered by Christ’s sacrifice. (v.26)
— have been made holy by the blood of the covenant. (v.29)
— have “remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering.” (v.32)
— “knew there were better things waiting for [them] that will last forever.” (v.34)

The fact he is speaking to such people is precisely what makes verse 29 so jarring: “Just think how much worse [than death without mercy (v.28)] the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us.”

The fact he is speaking to such people is precisely what makes the exhortations to perseverance relevant:

— “Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise.” (v.23) This makes no sense if it is spoken to those who have not affirmed the hope and therefore cannot be holding to it tightly.

— “Do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you!” (v.35) Why warn someone about throwing away what they do not possess? Why encourage them to remember the great reward of faithfulness when they are not being faithful in the first place?

— “Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised.” (v.36) Why would those not doing God’s will need patient endurance so they can continue doing it? Why connect receiving the promised salvation with continuing to do God’s will, if receiving salvation is a matter of election and not persevering obedience?

— “’I will take no pleasure in anyone who turns away.’ But we are not like those who turn away from God to their own destruction. We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved. (v.38b-39) How can we turn away from the Lord if we were not in the first place turned toward him? And, again, why connect salvation to faithfulness, if it actually is a matter of election?

Election and predestination are precious truths of Scripture. Paul told the Roman believers that “God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.” (Romans 8:29-30)

Salvation is for those God knew in advance and predestined for conformity to Christ’s image. But it must also be about faithful obedience to walk in God’s ways and make disciples. The entire point of Hebrews comes down to the danger of throwing away the amazing gift purchased for such an awful price. But the elect do not in any meaningful sense “take heed” of the warnings and “persevere in faith and holiness,” if it is impossible for them to ignore the warnings and fail to persevere.

Because the warning is not meaningless, the exhortation and promise are powerful: “Do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you!” (v.35)

All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.

Hiking in the Serengeti

August 29, 2016

Walking the narrow path without a doctrine of apostasy is like trekking in the Serengeti without a theology of lions.

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!

Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die.

— Charles Wes­ley

Purging Christian theology of the doctrine of apostasy — and ignoring the Bible texts that undergird it — is a betrayal of God’s people and a concession to the consumerist spirit of the age.

The Scripture’s clear teaching on the necessity of obedience — and the consequences of disobedience — are unpalatable to consumers who think they have sealed a transaction that entitles them to heaven after death.

God’s flock deserves to hear the whole truth. “Anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.” (John 3:36 NLT)

Salvation is free, and it will cost you your life.

If we emphasize the differences between New Testament and Old Testament faith, and fail to point out their similarities, we drain the New Testament warning passages of all meaning and put our brothers and sisters in serious danger.

How are we different?

April 1, 2016

Is the Christian’s salvation somehow more permanent than Abraham’s? Is our faithlessness — reflected in our apathy toward injustice and oppression — any less vulnerable to judgment than Israel’s?

“I will test you with the measuring line of justice and the plumb line of righteousness. Since your refuge is made of lies, a hailstorm will knock it down. Since it is made of deception, a flood will sweep it away. I will cancel the bargain you made to cheat death, and I will overturn your deal to dodge the grave. When the terrible enemy sweeps through, you will be trampled into the ground.” (Isaiah 28:17-18 NLT)

The Lord’s word to the church in Sardis is heavy on my heart this morning.

He wrote to a people who had a reputation for being alive, but who in fact were dead. He knew they were dead because he knew their deeds. While a few members of the congregation had kept themselves unstained by the world, most had not. He promised that those faithful ones ultimately would overcome and “walk with him in white.” Because they had not denied him before the world, he would confess them before the Father and the angels.

He promised that the names of those few would not be erased from the book of life.

On the other hand, the majority of the church was in serious danger. Their deeds were not complete in the sight of God. (v.2) They thought they were alive, but they were dead. It reminds us of James’ words that “faith” is useless if it is not accompanied by works. Dead faith cannot save. (James 2:14-26) The faith that saves, that keeps a person unstained by the world, is found in those who do things like visit orphans and widows in their distress. (James 1:27)

The church at Sardis was warned to not just talk about faith while leaving their works of faith incomplete before God. What little remained of their saving faith was about to die. While their fellow church members would be welcomed by Jesus and see their names remain in the book of life, the “faith without works” crowd would find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by Jesus the Righteous Judge.

They would not be in the group whose names remained in the book of life.

The Lord warned then, and warns now: “So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. … He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (3:3,6)

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (Revelation 3:1-6 NAS)