Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Monday, April 11, 2011

Thoughts on the Warning Passages of Scripture

Last week I finished up my four part series on eternal security over on the GTY blog:

Is Eternal Life Always Eternal?

How Firm Our Foundation

Once Saved, Always Saved?

Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim it!

I wanted to build my case for the doctrine of eternal security around four areas:

  • The concept of conditional security, or a Christian can lose his salvation, is contrary to God’s clear and direct promise to save sinners.
  • The significance of our regeneration and God’s power to overcome our orientation to sin.
  • The significance of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in the lives of Christians.
  • The legal relationship we have with Christ; we as His slaves, redeemed from sin, and He as our sovereign Lord and Master.

I can testify that it was quite an adventure and I received a lot of good feedback from commenters.

There was one question I saw asked by a number of commenters: How exactly do you explain the warning passages about falling away that teach a Christian can lose his salvation?

Let me offer few thoughts:

- First, when we look at the whole of Scripture, there are no warning passages teaching us Christians can lose their salvation. Granted, there are certainly “warning passages,” but the warnings are directed toward being on the alert against false teachers, or being led astray into error, or being tossed about by false doctrine. There isn’t one that clearly says a Christian can endanger his relationship with Christ to the point Christ will disown him, take back His promise of eternal life, and cast the former Christian away into eternal judgment.

- Second, any warning passage understood to be speaking to the loss of a Christian’s eternal life is inferred by the exegete reading the passage. In these occasions, the exegete brings his theological presuppositions to bear upon the passage in order to draw the inference the passage in question is teaching Christians can lose their salvation.

- Obviously, my second point cuts both ways. Those exegetes who teach eternal security bring their theological presuppositions to bear upon those passages as well. However, I believe the clearer biblical revelation insists we understand these warning passages in light of eternal security rather than conditional security. Meaning, the whole of Scripture clearly teaches a Christian’s salvation is secure and certain and can never be lost. So then any uncertain passage that appears to “warn” Christians about the danger of losing their salvation must be interpreted and read in light of that clearer revelation.

- Of the warning passages in the Bible, Hebrews has what appears to be the most direct. Specifically Hebrews 6:4-6 which reads,

“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put him to an open shame.”

I can’t provide a comprehensive study of this passage, but I will make some observations:

  • The author shifts from speaking directly to his readers, “you” (5:11, 12), “us” (6:1), and “we” (6:3) to addressing a group outside their immediate circle, “those” (6:4). That is relevant, because he is not addressing any of his readers, but an unnamed group outside their group.
  • Next, notice that his description of “those” who have fallen away is of them having been “enlightened,” having “tasted,” having “partaked,” and having “tasted.” The grammar of the text suggests nothing was amiss. There was nothing inadequate or partial about their experience. All of these things were true of them, they were enlightened, they tasted, and they partook of salvation, which is clearly implied by the passage.
  • However, note how their falling away is permanent. There is no hope of renewing them again, it is impossible. If this passage is saying a Christian can lose his salvation, once he has lost it, it’s gone forever with no hope of rescue.

How then do we understand this passage? I think commentator, Homer Kent, has the best solution. He believes what is being spoken of here in Hebrews 6:4-6 is hypothetical. He explains it this way in his commentary on Hebrews:

Proponents of this view [the hypothetical view] hold that the author has described a supposed case, assuming for the moment the presupposition of some of his confused and wavering readers. To those who would suggest that they are truly regenerated but could still go back to Judaism (thus turning from an exclusive allegiance to Jesus), he warns by his description what the frightening end would be. If a person were truly enlightened and would experience everything provided in regeneration, and then would turn away in repudiation, it would be not light thing, for he would be without hope of recovery. He would have abandoned the only means of life-changing repentance. …

This explanation follows the normal exegesis of verses 4 and 5, regarding the description as of regenerated persons. It also treats the warning severely as verse 6 infers, and harmonizes with the severe warnings of 10:26-27 and 12:25. The hypothetical case is frequently objected to as not providing any real warning if it could not happen. Yet hypothetical and even impossible cases are not unknown in Scripture. Paul wrote in Galatians 3:12, “And the law is not of faith: but, the man that does them shall live in them” (but no one ever did, nor could). James 2:10 states, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law [a hypothetical condition] and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” Jesus said in John 9:39, “I am come…that they which see might be made blind” (there were none who could see, but Jesus took His hearers at the estimate of themselves, v. 41). The author of Hebrews implies that he is speaking this way in 6:9. [Kent, 113].



Blogger Tom said...

Recently I camped out in Heb 6 (and 10) for a while trying to understand these "falling away" passages. I listened to sermons from MacArthur, Piper, Dever, along with reading other material. Overall, I think Piper had the best in-context understanding (which can be found here: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/when-is-saving-repentance-impossible).

In short, the argument is as follows:

1. The terms "tasted," "enlightened," etc. are not *always* used to describe saved people, hypothetical or otherwise. Rather they are used other places to describe someone intimately familiar with the gospel. Head knowledge, experience with God's people, even being in the (visible) church.

2. The word picture that follows in vv7-8 parallels the group of people described in vv 4-6. That is, the same "blessings" fall on two types of people/land, and the land either produces fruit or it produces thistles. It is not as if they land produces fruit and then dies. It is that it was *never* fruitful -- it produced thistles.

3. Finally, in v9, the writer switches back from (as you pointed out) talking about "they" to "you." And he makes clear that when he is referring to "you" (the readers), is he is referring them having things that "belong to salvation." This implies that things that the "things" that the group in vv4-6 had -- enlightenment, tasting, etc. -- did *not* belong salvation. In other words, just tasting/experiencing *isn't* salvation. Granted, one can't be saved *without* tasting/experiencing, but they are not part-and-parcel the same.

Honestly, I think Heb 10:26-31 is the more challenging piece, especially in light of v29's "[he who] has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified..." Piper's conclusion was that "sanctified" cannot mean what we usually infers it means, ie progressive, salvific, sanctification. He draws on 10:14's alternate use of the word "sanctified" to make the case that v29 refers to a non-salvific "set apart-ness." MacArthur (at least in the message I listened to which over 30 years old) said he thought the sanctified person in v29 was referring to Christ. That may have changed since the delivery of the message, but I didn't find myself agreeing with that.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

In Christ

6:20 AM, April 12, 2011  

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