Hebrews 6, Can We Fall Away?

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
Hebrews 6:1-4

REM – Losing Religion back in the 90s

I must confess I have slowed in my readings (and writings) of Hebrews this week for two reasons. One – because I was away on study leave enjoying teachings of NT Wright and the beauty of fall in Princeton, NJ. Two – because we began with this extremely troubling passage. I wanted to find some more time this week to study it, but here we are on the eve of week six and I wanted to say something.

It appears as though this passage is saying that someone can come to Christ, be “saved”, and then fall away. If this were to happen, there’s no turning back. Almost like saying you can come and be forgiven for any sin, but only once.

So this is troubling for all the worry it would cause if we can lose our salvation. It would change where I stand before God from solid rock to shifting sand. These verses are also troubling because we read elsewhere passages like (and this is just a small sampling):

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish;no one will snatch them out of my hand.
John 10:27-28

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:6

So how do we reconcile these passages? Some of the ways I’ve seen this described go like this:

This hypothetical person can’t be forgiven because they do not want it. They have turned their back and it isn’t so much that they can’t, but that they won’t be forgiven. This still has the issue of the possibility of falling away, but the argument can then continue by proposing that no one who would turn their back on Christ would have been a true Christian in the first place. The description of being enlightened, tasting heavenly gifts, and so on are descriptions of enjoying certain corporate benefits of the church. Or maybe it is some individual understanding, but it is not the same as being gifted the saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Quick review: So far the possible readings are that you can’t be forgiven because you don’t want it, or (with some possible overlap) that this hypothetical person hasn’t truly fallen away because that’s impossible and they were not a Christian to begin with.

Another take on this passage that tries to hold on to the witness of other parts of Scripture is that this passage is describing a non-sensical if-then statement. If a person were to fall away then for them to repent and come back would mean Christ is recrucified. But Christ can’t be recrucified. Hebrews itself has already talked of Christ’s once for all sacrifice and how his death on the cross was completely sufficient. If that is the case, and he’s now been raised from the dead, how could he and why would he be crucified again? So if Christ can’t be recrucified, such as it is an impossibility, then the circumstances that would lead to it are also an impossibility. If Christ has died for your sins then you would never have need for him to return to the cross again. If you’ve been redeemed, then you can’t reverse the process and this is in fact an argument against the mere possibility of falling away.

Those are some of the interpretations out there. Again, some just read it as though you can lose your salvation. But I don’t believe that God’s plans can be foiled. If he has chosen you and me, then he has the power keep us in his grasp. I wish I had a plainly obvious way of reading this that would just click. We must read Scripture in light of other scripture which can make things complicated But I believe the greater theme is that of God’s sovereignty.

What I do try to take away is a challenge to remain vigilant. We ought to keep ourselves committed to Christ and to following after his call. We need to be ever vigilant, while also resting confidently in the security that the work of our salvation is thankfully a work wholly of God.

The Gospel in Zechariah’s Vision of a High Priest

Satan, the accuser (Gustave Doré, Illustration from Dante’s Inferno)

Zechariah 3 includes a vision of the priest Joshua that in one short paragraph paints a picture of the gospel.

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”

Joshua is standing before the Lord with Satan beside him, accusing him. I imagine Satan describing Joshua’s inadequacy and sin. How could God accept one like him? What use does God have with Joshua? Look at his filthy garments!

But Satan’s accusations are of no use. The Lord rebukes Satan, removes the filthy garments, and bestows upon Joshua pure vestments. God overcomes Joshua’s iniquity and provides for him.

This could easily be the scene for any of us, sinful as we are, standing before God in judgment. Satan would not be lacking in his accusations. Who of us does not have a long list from which Satan could pick and choose? But the good news is that our sin, our filthy garments, that should disqualify us from standing before God are removed because of the work of Jesus Christ. God does not base his love for us in our deeds. Our deeds amount to nothing. Our right standing is based on what God has supplied for us. He removed our sin and gives to us his own righteousness.

Satan has no right to accuse us any longer. The only one who can condemn us, who can judge us in such a way is Christ, but he is the one who stands at the righthand of God interceding for us (Romans 8:34). The one who could accuse instead stepped in for us and died in our place so that his own righteousness could be placed upon us like pure vestments. It is a righteousness not our own, but of Christ (Phil 3:9).

Our sinfulness clothes us in filth, but by God’s grace we are cleansed, and instead clothed in Christ himself.

Just to be invisible: Philippians and Humility

Philippians is a book that shows the great depths of Christ’s humility. Christ is the one who has the most reason to be proud, but instead he humbled himself more than any other. He came down to us from heaven, emptying himself and taking the form of a servant. Not only did he come to serve, but he came to die for the people he came to save.

Paul writes to the church urging us to follow Christ in this regard. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” Then what follows it he powerful description of Christ’s humility.

But Christ does not end in a lowly position. His end is not the cross. He has been raised up and at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is quoted from the book of Isaiah, here in reference to Jesus and in Isaiah as a reference to God. Paul is making the case that it is right to worship Christ, to lift up his name. He is the Son of God.

In sight of this, how can we not be humble? God came to us, died for us, saved us, loves us. This is not something God had to do, but something he chose to do in his great mercy. We cannot live in light of this with conceit or pride. We ought to live like Christ, being like servants. If we are to make a name for anyone, it should be the name of Christ. Like John the Baptist our pursuit is to decrease so that Christ may increase (John 3).

We should put great effort and energy into spreading the name of Christ, all for the glory of God. Our work should be to shift focus away from ourselves and onto the one who has saved us.

Many women and men humbly serving one purpose.

I read this quote a while back and I think it is fitting. It is about orchestras and the way in which the best musicians come together not to bring attention to themselves, but to come together and make something greater than themselves. It’s from an article The Believer, which I’ve slightly edited, referring to the New York Philharmonic:

They were the top in their school and then the top at Juilliard and now they’re playing second cello. And the humility is as high as the musicianship. Let’s say you’re playing a Beethoven piece in a room where the same piece was played one hundred years ago. They’re sitting in the same chairs, wearing the same shoes and suits, playing instruments that are one hundred years old, playing the same sounds with the best conductor of their time, who is standing under photos of twenty of the greatest conductors. And when the music started playing, I had this idea that the music was coming through this little channel—for lack of a better word—for years and years. Musicians come and go and they’re stewards of the music for a brief period of time. But once the music plays—it’s really between Beethoven and the listener at that point. The musicians are there to get their … hands off of it. All that training! Thousands of hours! Sight-reading every day! All so they can get … out of the way because nobody gives a crap about them at all. The less you notice them, the better it sounds. I mean, it was the highest level of art in music that I’d ever seen, and it was performed by people who had spent countless hours of work just to be invisible.

We may know the name of an orchestra or even the name of the conductor. But can we name all the musicians whose work comes together to make something beautiful? That is how it should be in the church. We hope the church has made itself known for its great work and witness in this world, and certainly we hope the conductor, Christ, is known the world over. But our aim, as a second cello, should not be to draw attention to ourselves.

We are stewards of the gospel, stewards to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He has entrusted us a great work to do for his kingdom. We ought to devote such countless hours to make Christ visible and ourselves invisible–at least compared to Christ. That is humility. May he be seen by what we do. May Christ’s name receive all glory for our labors. May Jesus Christ receive all praise.

You’ve Got Mail!

So imagine you’re the church in Philippi.

Paul has done work in your area a while back. He came and taught, spending time in the household of a neighbor, Lydia. He got in to some trouble with the local officials, and while in jail he ministered to fellow prisoners and even though an earthquake loosed his chains and could have freed him, he remained. In doing so he kept the prison guard from taking his own life, and later this guard and his whole household believe in Jesus.

You believe what he taught about Jesus and seek to follow his teaching, even in a city that has shown itself to be hostile. There are some things that are familiar to the Jewish faith, and Jesus seems to be a continuation, but there is a radical newness to Christianity, as well. As much as you try to hold on to Paul’s teaching of the gospel, you have still have questions. Other teachers have come around and are spreading a message that doesn’t quite sound the same, and that troubles you. You’re also troubled because you know Paul himself has again found himself imprisoned in Rome.

You worry about him and the work he is to do for the gospel of Christ. Can he still spread the word?

To your delight you hear that your church has received a letter of encouragement, and it is from Paul, and from his fellow servant Timothy! You’ve been given the chance to hear it read for body of believers in Philippi. At the end of the day you all gather together in a home that you’ve frequently used for meetings–for prayer and worship, and you sit down to hear the news. He writes:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…

Year in the Bible, Quarter 2, Week 11

Jonah and the Whale, Verduner altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria by Nicholas of Verdun.

Welcome to another week. You may find yourself fortunate to have the day off due to the holiday, and if so, perhaps that means you have a few extra moments to begin this week’s reading.

We continue to plow through these shorter books of the Minor Prophets. If I haven’t said so already, don’t let their name mislead you. They are not minor in their importance, but are named as such because of their shorter length. This week we have three more in Jonah, Micah, and Nahum.

Then over in the New Testament we have the letter to the Philippians. We just happened to have finished studying this letter during a Sunday class, and I am excited to go through it again. It’s a wonderful book that draws focus on the great worth of Jesus Christ, the humility that he displayed and which we should display in response, and contentment that flows from such focus.

And of course, we continue with our slow walk through the Psalms.

Enjoy.

Story So Far, Week 6

I’ve read Luke 9:62 many times before. There Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I had often thought of Lot’s wife who turns back to her home and is turned into a pillar of salt. She was being delivered from judgment and all she could do was look back to her home.

But as we’ve finished the book of Exodus this week, I couldn’t help but read this verse in Luke and think of the Israelites as a whole. They were delivered from slavery and almost immediately they turn their hearts back to Egypt and to other gods. God is angered by these actions. We read this week in Exodus 34 that our God is a jealous God. He wants us for himself alone. God wants us to only worship him. Yet we look back again and again. We look back to false gods and idols. We look back imagining that an old life was better than it truly was. We rewrite history like the Israelites who wished they could return to Egypt where they felt life was better.

In Luke, Jesus pushes his disciples to not turn back from following him. There is a radical break in the way the disciples and Jesus relate to possessions and treasure–don’t look back to those. Do not return to seeing the world the way the culture does and they way you used to. To follow Jesus in many ways is to leave behind the things of the world.

As always, Jesus never pushes us and challenges us to do what he will not do himself. Earlier in chapter nine it says of Jesus, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knew what waited for him there. Jesus set his face to the city where he would be crucified, and he didn’t look back. Repeatedly Jesus says to his disciples that he came for that very purpose. Jesus did not look back even though his purpose was to die for those who hated him.

This Jesus is the one who tells us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” He calls us to come and follow him. We are to firmly fix our eyes on Jesus, and let the things of earth fade away, never looking back.

This is a hard task, greater than our efforts could accomplish, but thanks be to God that he gives us the strength and works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13).